Note to readers:The essay that follows was originally my master’s thesis for Goddard College. In the fall of 1984, it was published in Trivia: A Journal of Ideas, the longest piece they had published and the one that received the most reader response.
Trivia‘s editor called it “the essay on everything,” and she may have been right. At the very least, it’s an essay on creativity, and that’s the reason I chose to republish it here.
Essays on creativity are intended to spark other people’s creativity, so if any part of what follows speaks to you—take it and run with it.
THE DREAM IS THE BRIDGE
In Search of Lesbian Theatre
For the past fifteen months, as a graduate student at Goddard College, I’ve been prospecting in an interface between disciplines: where theatre, theology, and political theory converge. I’ve been trying to discover how to make art, make religion, and make revolution in ways that come together, answering my deepest desires.
In the following essay I attempt to spell out what I have found and to spell it out clearly and vividly enough that it can be of use. I work in the writing as much with metaphor and image as I do with concepts. My essential themes resist expression in the form of propositions. But what I have been learning and saying leads me to the following conclusions:
Catherine Nicholson (no middle name) was born in Troy, a small town in the Scottish Presbyterian sandhills region of North Carolina, on August 7, 1922, but her father Mike, the town druggist, registered her birth as August 8th. Catherine celebrated both days.
When Catherine was four, her older sister, Edna Earle, died at home from an overdose of morphine given her during an asthma attack by a new doctor in town. The morphine had come from Mike’s drugstore, a hard fact which Catherine’s mother never forgave. She took to her bed for a year, and during that year taught Catherine to read. Catherine’s head-start on schooling and her love for literature were born out of her mother’s unassuageable grief.
To escape the thunderclouds at home, Catherine spent much of her time outside the house. She read the magazines and drank cherry cokes at the soda fountain in her father’s drugstore, and watched every Hollywood movie that came to town – for free, in her uncle’s movie theatre. She played long hours with Nancy and other friends in the neighborhood: one of their best games was Plike (short for “play like you’rex … “), a form of theatre that didn’t require adult supervision or resources. And, when her mother didn’t intervene in time, Catherine gave her toys to the other children.
Moving Out into a Wider World
Catherine graduated from a small woman’s college near Troy that had been named after the 18th-century Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, remembered by the Scots for her courage, fidelity, and honor. Then Catherine went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a master’s in English literature. She taught in Winston-Salem, and later showed me the campus where she’d asked WH Auden to read. He arrived on the train from New York City, and she and her roommate invited all the beautiful, intelligent young men they knew for him to converse with. Catherine herself was working seriously on poems, but Auden never knew that.
Catherine never told me when and why her passion shifted from words on the page to live theatre, but she took the extraordinary step of moving alone from North Carolina to Chicago, to study at Northwestern University under the great acting teacher Alvina Krause. Catherine earned an MA and a PhD in theatre and oral interpretation at Northwestern, writing her dissertation on the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy.
It was during those years in the Midwest that Catherine made three discoveries which would shape her life until its closing: she discovered that, though she made a good actor, she made an even better director; she discovered the books of Jane Ellen Harrison, intellectual revolutionary who uncovered the violent destruction of female-centered culture which lay at the root of Western civilization; and she discovered Barbara, then an undergraduate in sociology at Northwestern and Catherine’s first real love.
Making Theatre Live
When I met her at the Charlotte Women’s Center in 1974, Catherine had directed university theatre for nearly twenty years, first at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia, then at the new branch of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, where she and the painter Maud Gatewood had begunthe interdisciplinary arts program. I knew that the old lovers and friends she introduced me to thought she was a great director, but I had no idea what that meant until after we were living together and she was directing what would be her final play at UNCC, “Twelfth Night,” cast irrespective of sex. I listened to her anguish night after day after night, and I watched as she created a whole world; I watched her slowly give that world over to the actors; and I watched her withdraw to let the actors in turn make that world live for their audience. I saw how what she did caused everyone touched by it to rise far above their ordinary selves. And I saw what happened when the play was done, the collapse of the collective extraordinary back into the individual ordinary.
How We Got Together and Catherine Left the University
Catherine had become fascinated with me by reading my journal (she could quote chunks of it verbatim), and I had become fascinated with her by listening to her talk. Catherine’s mind was a library, and she could talk a blue streak – from morning coffee, when she would recount fabulously detailed, richly theatrical dreams, to the last drop of bourbon nearly twenty hours later. She was fifty-three, she was at the top of her game professionally, and she drank a lot. I was twenty-eight, I lived and breathed revolution and the Charlotte Women’s Center, and I was career-less, unless you counted a part-time job as a technical writer.
We were in complete agreement that an ongoing love relationship would be a terrible idea. We were in complete agreement that my moving into her house would produce a catastrophe. We agreed completely, and then in early 1975, we went ahead and did it anyway.
After the “Twelfth Night” performances a few months later, Catherine left her tenured teaching position, explosively. In practical terms, she could have stayed. The administration was upset about the sex discrimination suit she’d filed, but they still needed her. The gay male artists who surrounded her like a Judy-Garland fan club were alarmed by the women’s center and by me, but, given time and reassurance, they would have come around. The real reason she left, I think now, was that she had reached the limits of what the patriarchal theatre tradition could do. She’d directed Greek tragedy, knowing that the stories the old plays told were stories of the defeat of women. She’d directed Shakespeare, playing with gender roles even more than he had. She’d directed Brecht and Ibsen and Strindberg and the first North American production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” She’d been there, she’d done that, and she wanted to create something new.
An Amazon Culture Center on Paper
You’d think I could tell most excellent stories about the years (1976-81) that Catherine and I did Sinister Wisdom together, but it was like being picked up by a tornado. Memory pictures swirl in my head, both of us being turned and twisted and swept away, from North Carolina to Nebraska to Massachusetts. I remember the women all along the way, lesbian-identified and not – massive presences, startling presences, stellar souls. I remember the ecstasy of break-through conversations, the traveling from lesbian home to lesbian home, the cooperative labor (many hands are supposed to make light work, but there was so much work associated with Sinister Wisdom, it needed an army and a couple of generations).
Through it all, Catherine remained in some sense the director. It was her idea that we should publish a magazine together. The resources we burned up in the process were chiefly hers. She was, essentially, the one who made Sinister Wisdom happen and the one who kept it going, most especially when I was felled by an attack of Graves’ disease in Nebraska.
Catherine was the lion-heart of Sinister Wisdom, and it is for that, more than for any other of the many gifts she gave, that I honor her and wish her to be remembered.
note: I wrote this tribute to Catherine after Julie R. Enszer, the current editor of Sinister Wisdom, e-mailed me that Catherine had just died. The news was not a surprise because it had been over a year since Catherine had been able to remember who I was, and her goddaughter had told me a few weeks earlier that Catherine had suffered a massive stroke. Surprised or not, however, I was in a state of semi-shock when I started writing this, and Julie patiently waited while I struggled through to the end.
My piece appeared along with other tributes by Marilyn Frye, Beth Hodges, and Susan Robinson (aka Susan Wood-Thompson) in Sinister Wisdom 90 (Fall 2013).
The 111th book-length issue of Sinister Wisdom arrived in my rural mailbox a few weeks ago. Wherever Catherine is now (I’ve listed her in my address book as “free in the universe”), I say to her, Remember that project we started with such trepidation in 1976? Guess what—it’s succeeding beyond our wildest imaginings.
While rereading my 1974 journal, I found a brief and very girly expression of Pure Self-Pity. At first I was embarrassed by the four-line poem and even more by the sentiment it expressed. But then I thought, hey, self-pity may be the human equivalent of crawling into a hiding place and licking your wounds after a spectacularly unsuccessful hunt. A natural thing, in other words. Even a good thing.
Why in 1974, however, I chose to express my wounded creature-ness through the voice of a Victorian housemaid, I don’t know. Any more than I know why I still love to write, when it’s clear that writing has created more problems for me than it has solved—and it doesn’t save the world either.
Maybe people read and write because they’re lonely for companions. If so, I offer the following tiny poem to accompany you in your own oh-gawd-I’m-so-inept-I’m-gonna-starve, I-should-go-away-and-die-already moments.
The Housemaid’s Lament
Little gimcracks are what I’m worth,
Nothing big or sweeping.
Little needles, little pins,
Little bits of weeping.
The woods are my church
because everyone in them lives by the law.
If you take more than you need there,
your surplus will be stolen by brown bears,
I take to the woods
like wild geese to Northern skies,
like the red fox to her sensuous den.
The woods are cradle,
spire. The oak, my god;
the ladyslipper, my pleasure.
If I go to the woods,
it is not to flee humans —
I am a human too.
What I touch, I despoil.
My greed knows no bounds.
My jealousy sickens every sacred creature.
If I go to the woods,
without knowledge, without skill,
it is to ask the holy ones
– Harriet Ann Ellenberger
note: This old (mid-1980s in its original version) and defiant poem still speaks for me, and I still like it. Most especially I like it at this time of year, when the buying orgy known as Christmas is past its prime, and once again Mr. Bear and I have survived a religious/commercial holiday by ignoring it. Also, by assiduously avoiding shopping-mall parking lots from mid-November to January 2nd.
The owl photo is by Tina Rataj Berard, on Unsplash.
What if whales are singing the music of the spheres?
What if whales sing in the rhythms and tones of creation creating?
What if whale song brings forth new being?
What if whale song travels beyond earth’s bubble of air?
What if whale song reaches the stars?
What if whales sing to the stars?
What if the stars sing back?
– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 15 December 2018
note: “Whales and the Cosmos” was inspired by Helen Hye-Sook Hwang’s most recent work in reconstructing the old mytho-history of East Asia, in which whales, stars and creation-through-sound play a large part (see her articles in Return to Mago E-zine). The wild-eyed questions in the poem are mine, but she was the muse.
Scientists are still not certain what purpose is served by the lengthy and extraordinarily complex songs of whales.
The image is from the blog “Cosmic Reflections” by David Oesper.
Today at our peace gathering, when the son of a poet read a poem in Arabic on the steps of city hall, something broke loose in me. My mind comprehended none of the words, but my body understood the emotion carried by rhythm and sound.
No one knows where poems come from; we can only notice the circumstances in which they arrive. This one showed up about two hours after the rally ended. SONG OF SOULS
Startled by death
that fell from a roaring sky,
we flew away.
We circled high,
higher than the war planes fly,
and we saw you far below,
piling our broken bodies
in the back of your truck,
driving to a hospital
where none could heal us
and none could heal you.
O hear our song
in the music of the wind —
We have found the forever place,
the place of no war.